North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

On contraception

leave a comment »

G.E.M. Anscombe, 1919-2001

G.E.M. Anscombe was a respected philosopher who, it is said, once humbled C.S. Lewis in a debate. She translated many of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s works into English. She studied at both Oxford and Cambridge. You can read more about her here. She sounds like a remarkable woman.

The following is an excerpt from her essay, “Contraception and Chastity.” The entire text is interesting reading for the philosophically inclined. I have to include one very important note before sending readers off, however. Anscombe refers in her essay to the “rythym method” and this dates her essay some. She correctly alludes to the need for more research on the matter and that reserach has given us Natural Family Planning (NFP), which is much more reliable. I have not altered her text, but readers should keep this development in mind.

Do I need to point out that this essay is revevant to the SSM debate? No? Good. On with Anscombe then. The italics have mostly been added by me, for readers in a hurry. If you’re really, really in a hurry you can skip to the section where she talks about the difference between working to rule and workplace sabotage. That is an interesting analogy and I want to draw attention to.

People still feel intensely confused, because the intention where oral contraceptives are taken seems to be just the same as when intercourse is deliberately restricted to infertile periods. In one way this is true, and its truth is actually pointed out by Humanae Vitae, in a passage I will quote in a moment. But in another way it’s not true.

The reason why people are confused about intention, and why they sometimes think there is no difference between contraceptive intercourse and the use of infertile times to avoid conception, is this: They don’t notice the difference between “intention” when it means the intentionalness of the thing you’re doing – that you’re doing this on purpose – and when it means a further or accompanying intention with which you do the thing. For example, I make a table: that’s an intentional action because I am doing just that on purpose. I have the further intention of, say, earning my living, doing my job by making the table. Contraceptive intercourse and intercourse using infertile times may be alike in respect of further intention, and these further intentions may be good, justified, excellent. This the Pope has noted. He sketched such a situation and said: “It cannot be denied that in both cases the married couple, for acceptable reasons,” (for that’s how he imagined the case) “are perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and mean to secure that none will be born.” This is a comment on the two things: contraceptive intercourse on the one hand and intercourse using infertile times on the other, for the sake of the limitation of the family.

But contraceptive intercourse is faulted, not on account of this further intention, but because of the kind of intentional action you are doing. The action is not left by you as the kind of act by which life is transmitted, but is purposely rendered infertile, and so changed to another sort of act altogether.

In considering an action, we need always to judge several things about ourselves. First: is the sort of act we contemplate doing something that it’s all right to do? Second: are our further or surrounding intentions all right? Third: is the spirit in which we do it all right? Contraceptive intercourse fails on the first count; and to intend such an act is not to intend a marriage act at all, whether or no we’re married. An act of ordinary intercourse in marriage at an infertile time, though, is a perfectly ordinary act of married intercourse, and it will be bad, if it is bad, only on the second or third counts.

If contraceptive intercourse is permissible, then what objection could there be after all to mutual masturbation, or copulation in vase indebito, sodomy, buggery (I should perhaps remark that I am using a legal term here – not indulging in bad language), when normal copulation is impossible or inadvisable (or in any case, according to taste)? It can’t be the mere pattern of bodily behaviour in which the stimulation is procured that makes all the difference! But if such things are all right, it becomes perfectly impossible to see anything wrong with homosexual intercourse, for example. I am not saying: if you think contraception all right you will do these other things; not at all. The habit of respectability persists and old prejudices die hard. But I am saying: you will have no solid reason against these things. You will have no answer to someone who proclaims as many do that they are good too. You cannot point to the known fact that Christianity drew people out of the pagan world, always saying no to these things. Because, if you are defending contraception, you will have rejected Christian tradition.

People quite alienated from this tradition are likely to see that my argument holds: that if contraceptive intercourse is all right then so are all forms of sexual activity. To them that is no argument against contraception, to their minds anything is permitted, so long as that’s what people want to do. Well, Catholics, I think, are likely to know, or feel, that these other things are bad. Only, in the confusion of our time, they may fail to see that contraceptive intercourse, though much less of a deviation, and though it may not at all involve physical deviant acts, yet does fall under the same condemnation. For in contraceptive intercourse you intend to perform a sexual act which, if it has a chance of being fertile, you render infertile. Qua your intentional action, then, what you do is something intrinsically unapt for generation and, that is why it does fall under that condemnation. There’s all the world of difference between this and the use of the “rhythm” method. For you use the rhythm method not just by having intercourse now, but by not having it next week, say; and not having it next week isn’t something that does something to today’s intercourse to turn it into an infertile act; today’s intercourse is an ordinary act of intercourse, an ordinary marriage act. It’s only if, in getting married, you proposed (like the Manichaeans) to confine intercourse to infertile periods, that you’d be falsifying marriage and entering a mere concubinage. Or if for mere love of ease and hatred of burdens you determined by this means never to have another child, you would then be dishonouring your marriage.

*** We may be helped to see the distinction by thinking about the difference between sabotage and working-to-rule. Suppose a case where either course will have some typical aim of “industrial action” in view. Whether the aim is justified: that is the first question. But, given that it is justified, it’s not all one how it is pursued.

If a man is working to rule, that does no doubt make a difference to the customary actions he performs in carrying out the work he does. It makes them also into actions in pursuit of such-and-such a policy. This is a matter of “further intention with which” he does what he does; admittedly it reflects back on his action in the way I have stated. That is to say: we judge that any end or policy gives a new characterization of the means or of the detailed things done in executing it. All the same he is still, say, driving this vehicle to this place, which is part of his job.

If, however, he tries to sabotage his actions – he louses up a machine he is purporting to work, for example – that means that qua intentional action here and now his performance in “operating” the machine is not a doing of this part of his job. This holds quite without our having to point to the further intention (of industrial warfare) as reflecting back on his action. (And, N.B. it holds whether or not such sabotage is justified.)

Thus the distinction we make to show that the “rhythm method” may be justified though contraceptive intercourse is not, is a distinction needed in other contexts too.

The anger of the propagandists for contraception is indeed a proof that the limitation of conception by the “rhythm” method is hateful to their spirit. It’s derided for not working. But it does work for many. And there were exclamations against the Pope for pressing medical experts to find out more, so that there could be certainty here. The anger I think speaks to an obscure recognition of the difference between ordinary intercourse with abstention at fertile times when you are justified in seeking not to conceive at present, and the practice of contraceptive intercourse.

Biologically speaking, sexual intercourse is the reproductive act just as the organs are named generative organs from their role. Humanly speaking, the good and the point of a sexual act is: marriage. Sexual acts that are not true marriage acts either are mere lasciviousness, or an Ersatz, an attempt to achieve that special unitedness which only a real commitment, marriage, can promise. For we don’t invent marriage, as we may invent the terms of an association or club, any more than we invent human language. It is part of the creation of humanity and if we’re lucky we find it available to us and can enter into it. If we are very unlucky we may live in a society that has wrecked or deformed this human thing.

This – that the good and the point of a sexual act is marriage – is why only what is capable of being a marriage act is natural sex. It’s this that makes the division between straightforward fornication or adultery and the wickedness of the sins against nature and of contraceptive intercourse. Hence contraceptive intercourse within marriage is a graver offence against chastity than is straightforward fornication or adultery. For it is not even a proper act of intercourse, and therefore is not a true marriage act. To marry is not to enter into a pact of mutual complicity in no matter what sexual activity upon one another’s bodies. (Why on earth should a ceremony like that of a wedding be needed or relevant if that’s what’s in question?) Marriage is a mutual commitment in which each side ceases to be autonomous, in various ways and also sexually…

I have little in the way on commentary to add, for the moment. I am simply curious to see what people might have to say. You never get such an accurate description of traditional Christian views in any media. Is this shocking? Curious? Maybe just odd?

The tip for the lead to this article goes to The Consevative Philosopher, a real gem of a site.


Written by Curt

March 7, 2005 at 5:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: